Saturday, August 28, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 266, A Review: "Mamma Mia!" (The Arts at Angeloria's)

 By James V. Ruocco

"Dancing Queen"
"Money, Money, Money"
"Thank You For the Music"
"Honey, Honey"
"The Name of the Game"
"I Have a Dream"
"Take a Chance On Me"
"Super Trouper"

Those songs and others are part of the "Mamma Mia!" musical which made its West End debut in London" back in 1999 and eventually made the leap to Broadway two years later. To date, it has been performed all over the world and in 2021, to be exact, shows absolutely no sign of slowing down or getting older.

Then and now, "Mamma Mia!" is one of those contagious, family-friendly shows that demonstrate the enduring power of romantic musicals and one that comes gift wrapped with bright colors, catchy musical numbers, fluid staging, cute characters, lively choreography, pungent one liners and a happy ending that actors and audiences simply cannot get enough of.

You know the story.
You know the songs.
You know the characters.
You know the outcome.
Catching "Mamma Mia!" on stage is like coming home to a great big family celebration where the champagne flows, the music sparkles, the food is satisfying and the dancing is completely magical. Toss in some very tasty wedding cake and you'll have the time of your life.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Arts of Angeloria's cheery, flavorful presentation of the ever-popular ABBA musical starring Lori Holm as Donna Sheridan and Theresa Cusson as her daughter Sophie.

There are rewards aplenty.

This "Mamma Mia!" is fizzy and clever.
It is terrific fun.
It is full of life.
It is sweet and syrupy.
It is energetic and full-out.
It is captivating and enchanting.
It is heartwarming and charming.
It is fast and fluid.
It is a welcome diversion.
And boy, do we need it now.

As musical theatre, it also serves up ABBA classics - each and every one a hit.
It displays invites of hugs, kisses, singalongs, swaying arms and clapping hands.
It is a terrific diversion for audiences of any age and gender.
Its party atmosphere rings loud and clear.
Longevity has also been its reward.

The sweet-tinged story of  "Mamma Mia! " as written by playwright Catherine Johnson, is built on the recurring theme of love, passion, survival, surprise and romantic unexpectedness. As the musical opens (the action is set on the island of Kalokari in Greece), 21-year-old Sophie Sheridan finds her mother Donna's diary from 1979 and decides to contact the three guys mentioned - Sam, Harry and Bill - one of whom could very well be her biological father - and invites them to her upcoming wedding to Sky, her beachcomber boyfriend.

Donna's two best friends and former members of her once popular girl group "Donna and the Dynamos" - Tanya and Rosie - are also en route to the island nuptials, but for plot purposes, no one (at first, anyway) has any idea of what Sophie has done, not even her mother. How and what happens next gives "Mamma Mia!" enough romantic fuel to keep things happily in focus until the big finish at the end of Act II.

Staging "Mamma Mia!" is Kim Dougherty who makes her first-time directorial debut at the cozy and intimate Arts of Angeloria venue. Working from Johnson's play script, she brings the right voice and reason to the proceedings, matched by an appropriate wit and energy that kicks the two-act musical into orbit without ever going overboard to the point where "Mamma Mia!" become knee-deep in kitsch, bubble-gum goo and corny ornamentation. She also makes great use of the theater's intimate environs by using the center and side aisles for entrances, exits and production numbers without any form of overkill. Simplicity is key to this production's success and Dougherty tackles this staging technique most engagingly.
Here, the heart, soul and romance of the main story and its many subplots are deftly shaped and realized by the director in completely natural ways that allow the musical to breathe, evolve and resonate with both the onstage actors and the entire audience. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is over-the-top and ridiculous, Nothing is thrown in for the sake of additional laughter or dramatic effect.
What sets this particular production apart from other local productions of  "Mamma Mia!" is that Dougherty looks at it from a completely different perspective. As the story evolves, musically or through page-by-page dialogue, she uses an immersive approach to her telling reflective in her three-dimensional staging, her blocking, her interactions, the musical numbers and the swiftness of the play's fast and fluid set changes. It's a feat she accomplishes swimmingly, all of which is nicely timed to the  beat of the music, the songs themselves and happily romantic storyline. 

Based on the songs of ABBA, composed by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (Stig Andersson is also credited in the footnotes for certain songs used in the two-act musical), "Mamma Mia!" includes 26 high-energy musical numbers culled from the pop-tinged ABBA songbook. They are "Prologue/I Have a Dream," "Honey, Honey," "Money, Money, Money," "Thank You For the Music," "Mamma Mia!" "Chiquitita," "Dancing Queen," "Lay All Your Love On Me," "Super Trouper," "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)," "Voulez Vous," "Under Attack," "One of Us," "S.O.S.," "Does Your Mother Know?" "Knowing Me, Knowing You," "Our Last Summer," "Slipping Through My Fingers," "The Winner Takes It All," "Take a Chance On Me," "I Do, I Do, I Do," "I Have a Dream," "Mamma Mia! (Encore)," "Dancing Queen (Encore)" and "Waterloo."

The songs themselves, nicely incorporated into Catherine Johnson's romantic story, transcend time and place in the most agreeable of ways. They are serviceable to the plot, its power-pop progression and the various characters and chorus members who sing them and bring them to life night after night. Every single one of them are fun, deliciously nostalgic and very, very hummable.

With Alan Dougherty as musical director for this particular incarnation of the oft-performed musical,  "Mamma Mia!" achieves a giddy charm and musical greatness that unfolds with plenty of snap, power, whimsy, heartbreak and disco ball fantasia. Completely akin to the song style, beat and rhythm that is ABBA - pop rock, light ballads, folksy glam, euro disco, funk-inspired hooks, novelty kitsch - Dougherty dutifully respects and understands the unstoppable, invincibly commercial romantic bliss, mindset and glitz that is ABBA, the group's lathered expressionism and the surface beauty and intimacy of the actual songs themselves. That, in a musical of this nature, goes a very long way.

Working alongside a handpicked team of talented musicians (Ed Rosenblatt, Jordan Brint, Ray Boyce, Nick Stanford, Sean Haight, Mark Sokolson), Dougherty brings a certain freshness, remarkable urgency and deep tenderness to the "Mamma Mia!" score, matched by a pulsating flair and charismatic energy.  Every member of the orchestral team is totally in sync with the instrumental detail of ABBA's achievements - "Mamma Mia!" "Dancing Queen," "Voulez Vous," "Super Trouper" "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)"- throughout the production, marvelously capturing and portraying the feeling, the confidence, the color, the innocence and the sparkle evident in the show's bouncy, generous and vibrant musical score. 

Choreography, when done right, is also key to the "Mamma Mia!" experience at Angeloria's. For this production, the theater has enlisted the talents of Qusanna Perez, a choreographer who works within the confines of the venue's immersive space and presents simple dance moves, pairings and ensemble connections that magnify the core love story, drama and humor at hand. In turn, nothing is repetitive or over baked.
The dance maneuvers and rhythmic patterns she develops are well-rehearsed, important, celebratory, sexy and trademark athletic. This is uninhibited choreography full of wit, brains, craft, propulsion and island splendor. It thrusts you into its lightweight world and subject matter with increasing power and beauty. It finds the right mindset of the moment and runs with it. It also strikes the right balance between dancer and audience and allows everyone involved to be completely swept up in the on-stage and in-the-aisle dance mania of it all.

"Mamma Mia!" stars Lori Holm as Donna Sheridan, Theresa Cusson as Sophie Sheridan, Amelia Nemeth as Tanya, Sara Fabrizio as Rosie, Joe Berthiaume as Sky, Kevin Pelkey as Harry Bright, Jerry Wooding as Bill Austin, John Zimmerman as Sam Carmichael, Nicole Zolad as Ali, Samantha Gamez as Lisa, Joey Abate as Pepper, Zach Fontanez as Eddie and Peter Weidt as Father Alexandrios.

As Donna Sheridan, the mother of Sophie and the former lead singer of the girl group "Donna and the Dynamos," Lori Holm offers a completely different interpretation of the character which grounds the part in a brave and truthful reality that was obviously missing from actresses who have played the role in other local productions over the last three years. Holm, last seen as Miss Prism in Castle Craig's exhilarating and recently streamed production of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," offers yet another memorable performance that showcases her dramatic, comedic, romantic and vocal skills.
Her Donna is earthy, stubborn, vulnerable, misunderstood and a survivalist. It's an important character portrait full of passion, optimism, spunk, truthfulness, strongness and determination. Vocally, she has great fun (her voice is full of dramatic yearn, open-heartedness and feel) with the many ABBA songs she is asked to sing and perform. In particular, "Money, Money Money," "Dancing Queen," "Super Trouper," "S.O.S." and the showstopping title song "Mamma Mia!" sung with the entire company.

In the role of Donna's daughter Sophie, Theresa Cusson is well cast opposite Holm and Joe Berthiaume who plays her boyfriend and soon-to-be-wedded husband Sky. No matter what song she sings - "I Have a Dream," "The Name of the Game," "Honey, Honey," to name a few - she hits all the right notes magnificently with an impassioned vitality, charm and emotion that reflects the mindset of the ABBA material and its creators. There's also a natural playfulness to her pairing with Berthiaume, both as a couple and during their important, big musical number "Lay All Your Love on Me," backed by the show's male ensemble.

Sara Fabrizio brings the right comic energy and zing to the part of Rosie, which she infuses with a spark and unique sense of propriety that adds fuel to her zany, unforgettable comedic performance. As the alluring, vain and sexually promiscuous Tanya, Amelia Nemeth makes all the right moves, both as an actress and a singer. Her big comic number "Does Your Mother Know" is great fun and one of the major highlights of Act II. Playing Sophie's best friends Ali and Lisa, Nicole Zolad and Samantha Gamez, display the comfort, joy and fun for their best friend characters while Joey Abate and Zak Fontanez ham it up convincingly as Pepper and Eddie, the two guys who work at Donna's taverna.

As Bill Austin, Jerry Wooding brings plenty of zest. personality and chutzpah to the part, making him standout whenever he's on stage. Near the end of Act II,  his hilarious comic duet with Fabrizio - "Take a Chance on Me" - charts the couple's wildly crazed seduction through decidedly, well-timed staging and outrageous frivolity. John Zimmerman's Sam Carmichael is both responsible and caring, particularly in his scenes with both Holm and Cusson. The best male performance of the trio, however, comes from local theater veteran Kevin Pelkey, cast in the pivotal role of cheeky Englishman Harry Bright. Here, the actor brings a sit-com ingenuity and spirit to the part, offset by a fresh, satirical approach that's plucky, funny and imaginative. "Our Last Summer," his Act II duet with Holm, is lots of fun and performed with genuine musicality as they reminisce about their romantic fling of long ago.

A musical of this caliber is not complete without a talented ensemble and this production of "Mamma Mia!" contains a chorus of men and women whose musical showmanship is so incredibly perfect, they deserve accolades of the highest honor. They are: Sandy Abate, Kat Powers, Charles Clark, Hannah Smyth, Elyse Lachapelle, Liz Parsons, Steffron Sampson, Cristin Daly, Kuhlken Gorman, Marty Garcia and Peter Weidt. Vocally, their individual teamwork is stellar, harmonious and pitch-perfect as is their ability to cut loose with the many different dances they are asked to perform throughout the two-act musical.

The perfect summer refreshment, complemented by an inviting outdoor environment of Victorian garden ambiance (before and after the show or during intermission), "Mamma Mia!" is a joyful, tuneful uplifting entertainment that pulls out all the ABBA classics with obvious affection, sparkle, dash and heartbreak that is seriously contagious and great fun. It's typical Broadway/West End musical fare that puts ABBA back on the brain again, performed with dazzling exhilaration by a very talented, attractive cast under Kim Dougherty's playful, up-tempo direction. The dancing, smartly choreographed by Qusanna Perez is lively and breezy. Catherine Johnston's original story is happily sunny and cheery like a Hallmark or Lifetime Movie romance. And the musical direction by Alan Dougherty makes you want to jump up from your seat and partake in the show's musical merriment.
The two-act musical is also the perfect show to put a smile on your face, get you all hot and bothered for a summer romance and send you out into the night right through the theater doors on a real sugar high like no other. 

(Photos of "Mamma Mia!" by Chris Zajac and Kim Turret) 

"Mamma Mia!" was staged August 7 -21, 2021 at The Arts at Angeloria's (223 Meriden Waterbury Turnpike, Southington, CT).
For information about upcoming shows, call (860) 426-9690.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 265, A Review: "Walden" (TheaterWorks/Hartford)

 By James V. Ruocco

Amy Berryman's debut play "Walden" is set sometime in the near future (the time and date are never mentioned) in a cabin in the woods surrounded by vegetable gardens, grass, tree stumps, gravel roads and lots and lots of woods.
It's a natural, comforting habitat in a world where a tsunami in Sri Lanka has wiped out millions of people, astronauts are just returning to earth after spending a year on the moon and living on Mars could actually become a reality.

As playwright, Berryman's work is chock full of ideas, conversations, conflicts, dreams and theories which, in turn, make it completely fascinating. And yes, there's a lot going on but "Walden's" strength comes from its complexity and page-turning excitement, a fact that thrusts the piece into the spotlight and forces you to listen to its many arguments, developments, debates, conclusions and ever-changing mood swings. 

There's talk about the environment, space, NASA, colonization, climate refugees, sibling rivalry, isolation, habitation, jealousy, job security, loneliness, etc. But it's all carefully placed, timed and delivered so that it resonates without any form of hesitation or confusion. As "Walden" moves from scene to scene without any intermission, the dialogue is vital, natural and imaginative. That coupled with the play's fully realized outdoor setting (impeccably designed by You-Shin Chen) allows a theatrical immersion between actor and audience that gives the production - LIVE or streamed - additional weight and substance. It's a factor that contributes greatly to the play's actual enjoyment. 

Backed by Hao Bai's atmospheric sound design and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's choice lighting design, the TheaterWorks production of "Walden" unfolds with a dramatic momentum and curiosity that is rich in both purpose and influence. It keeps you attentive. It keeps you guessing. It toys with your senses. It catches you off guard. It pushes you to the edge of your seat. It leaves you bewildered. It also touches upon several subjects that hit very close to home.

Staging "Walden" director Mei Ann Teo tackles Berryman's play script head on, thus, creating an important drama that is open, creative and theatrical with rewards aplenty for the on-stage actors, the LIVE audience and if you stream, the at-home viewer as well. As director, she knows what she wants and she runs with it. She takes chances. She know how to frame a scene, develop it, when to pause, when to change moods, how to move the actors unobtrusively about Chen's outdoor setting and when to shock or surprise her audience. The fact that you never know exactly how things will play out and how they will actually conclude over the course of the play's 100 minutes works to "Walden's" advantage.

For example, what really made Stella quit NASA (she was an architect who designed the Walden habitat) and take a meaningless job in a local bar? Why did Cassie, her fraternal twin take a different path in life? Why are the two sisters at odds with one other? Why did Bryan become an Earth Activist convinced that space colonization is wrong? Will Cassie actually travel to Mars to live out her life with twenty other individuals from the NASA program? 
The result of these and other questions is played out with an extreme sense of urgency and believability under Teo's watchful eye. The topics, no matter how big or strangely conceptual, fuel "Walden" with proper agility and excitement as it inches toward its encouraging conclusion.

"Walden" stars Diana Oh as Stella, Jeena Yi as Cassie and Gabriel Brown as Bryan. In the role of Stella, a woman who has given up her dreams and career for a simple life with her fiancee at their wooded homestead, Oh communicates her character's joy, hurt, bitter resentments and pain with a deft watchfulness and emotion that complements Berryman's artistic and visionary conceit. As Cassie, Yi is both natural and argumentative as she finds her self at odds with both Stella and career choices that can and will change her life forever. It's an emotionally charged performance that the actress delivers with the creative mindset envisioned by the playwright. Brown's portrayal of Bryan is honest, playful and intriguing. As climate activist, his belief in saving the planet from ultimate destruction rings loud and clear.  

 A well-intentioned, satisfying effort, "Walden" is a tight and clever three-character play brimming with a confidence and skill that feels both human and universal. It's an inspiring turn for TheaterWorks and one that director Mei Ann Teo delivers with kind of depth and passion that makes it stand tall on its own two feet. LIVE or streamed, it is an important work of theatre that demands to be seen, appreciated and enjoyed.

Photos by Chris Capezziello

Walden" is being staged by TheaterWorks (233 Pearl Street, Hartford, CT), now through August 29. It can we seen LIVE in the great outdoors at 100 RiverFront Recapture, Windsor, CT or streamed online. For tickets and more information, call (860) 527-7838.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 264, A Review: "Into the Woods" (Playhouse on Park)

 By James V. Ruocco

The classic fairy tale promised a life of happily ever after.
As did the big, old-fashioned Broadway musical with its typical flights of whimsy, giddy hopes and dreams and dazzling coats of many colors.

Stephen Sondheim's dark, deliciously wicked two-act musical "Into the Woods" turns all that good cheer and happiness upside down, inside out, left and right and on its head.
Ah, what fun! Ah, what joy!
Ah, what drama!
Ah, what hell!

At Playhouse on Park, a cozy, intimate, inviting space where a little night music can (and will) produce many, many smiles on a hot summer night or sunny summer afternoon, director Sean Harris' dark, inventive, vigorous and absolutely thrilling revival of Sondheim's 1987 Broadway musical wryly exposes the fun, the fantasy, the brashness, the tangled catastrophes, the sexiness, the homosexuality and the gender-bending theatrics of several fairy-tale characters who, much to our delight, don't get that happy ending they so longed for. Then again, that's the point of James Lapine's wildly insane plot, its grisly outcomes and its accidental demises, all of which are set to the pungent, eloquent and potent music and lyrics of the master himself - Mr. Stephen Sondheim.


As presented by Harris, this is "Into the Woods" as you've never seen it before. It not only harkens memories of the dark and gleeful original London production and the recent Broadway revival, but it thrusts this ravishing tale of fantasia and agony into a very new light. And therein, lies its enjoyment.

Here, the interwoven, marvelously textured fairy tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Wicked Witch, the Big Bad Wolf and the Baker and His Wife, among others, dance to a decidedly different beat.
Little Red Riding Hood, for example, is greedy, obnoxious and psychologically damaged. She also carries a knife. The Prince, charming as he is, dazzles and marries the beautiful Cinderella, but he can't resist the urge to have sex with several other lovelies including the Baker's Wife or have lusty thoughts about Rapunzel's Prince despite his supposed heterosexuality. 
Elsewhere, the beguiling Rapunzel accidentally runs into the path of the Giant and gets trampled to death, much to the horror of her handsome, narcissistic Prince and the Witch. She also gives birth to two adorable twin babies much earlier. And the Big Bad but very sexy Wolf is not only hungry for Little Red Riding Hood's Granny, but he too longs for a bit of you-know-what and this-and-that in the darkened corners of the magical woods.
And what about the famous glass slipper, you ask?
Lucinda and Florinda, the egotistical but thoroughly obnoxious stepsisters of the lovely but misunderstood Cinderella, are willing to do anything to make the shoe fit (hilariously staged by Harris) including having their toe or heel cut off to fit into the now-bloodied glass shoe. Regardless, Cinderella still gets her handsome Price.

How all of this and more is played out, scene by scene and song by song, gives this wildly inventive revival of "Into the Woods" its heartbeat, its pulse and its emotional center. You laugh. You cry. You cheer. You grimace. You shake your head in wonderment. You have sexual thoughts about the characters. You embrace the musical's dark, involving, beguiling moments. You revel in its many twists, turns and surprises. And you sit there spellbound by the beguiling and sinister magic that unfolds right before your very eyes.

This is musical theater. Real musical theater.
You never doubt it for a moment.

At Playhouse in Park, Sean Harris' directorial credits include "Passing Strange," "In the Heights," "Angels in America," "Cabaret," "Hair" and "Of Mice and Men." His theatrical savvy, creativity and knowledge of theater - in this case, musical theatre - make him the ideal candidate to stage "Into the Woods." Though his eyes, this production dances to its own decidedly different beat as Harris beguiles, cajoles, excites and seduces his audience by using bold, twisty and very dark strokes to rock the Sondheim boat and add more mystery to Lapine's cleverly constructed conceit. It's a journey like no other and one that gives the story additional weight, spark, lust, intuition and surprise. Just when you think you have it all figured out, Harris purposely knocks you on your ass by moving the musical in a very different direction. What's exactly up his sleeve during this 2 hr. and 45 minute entertainment keeps you on the edge of your seat wanting more and more which Harris naturally supplies cloaked in the wonderment of it all. Cinderella's birds, for example, are used more effectively in this staging in all their wicked glory. The decision to add  "Our Little World," a cleverly sung character piece between the Witch and Rapunzel that Sondheim debuted for the original London production, is wisely included in this version by Harris. It not only adds shading and color and thought to the twisty and convoluted mother-and-daughter relationship of the Witch and Rapunzel, but works beautifully in telling how the actual story of these two characters plays out over each act.  

Staging "Into the Woods," Harris, auteur that he is, delves deeply into the intricacies of Lapine's book, its rhythmic wordplay, its quirks, its beats, its pauses and pulses, its sexual innuendo and its gender-bending underbelly. As the musical unfolds, he embellishes the gloom and doom of the author's vision, its not-so-terribly sweet concept, its atypical language, it's dicey predicaments, its playful paradoxes, its doomed couplings, its obsessions, its cowardice and its unhappy twists of fate.

Yes, there is a lot to digest. There's a lot going on. There's a lot of surprises. And sometimes, you're not too sure what's going to happen next. Then again, that's the point. Nonetheless, Harris knows exactly what buttons to push, when and how to take chances, how to build and develop each scene, how to keep every one of his characters in the spotlight, how to introduce each song without ever once bringing the onstage action to a halt and finally, have the audience eating right out of his hands. It's a process that works especially well here and one that deserves a standing ovation its own right. The inclusion of lots and lots of darkness, all used to full advantage by Harris, is another plus that makes one easily forget all those syrupy fairy tales served up in ice cream colors by that studio of once-upon-a-time fantasy known as Disney.

Choreography is key to the success of "Into the Woods" and nobody does it better than Darlene Zoller, a dance enthusiast whose creativity and individuality is wonderfully showcased in this exhilarating production. Here, as in "In the Heights" and "Mamma D's," Zoller is once again, at the top of her game. Not one to opt for simple choreography or replayed dance routines and rhythms, she puts her own personal stamp on everything she touches and thus, offers something that is very original, creative and timely.
With "Into the Woods," there isn't a lot of dancing. But when asked to create something that defines the musical's blueprint, Zoller knows what she wants and she runs with it. When people move, they just don't move to the beat of the music or engage in simplistic couplings. Instead, Zoller choreographs them using very beautiful poses, marching, beats and pairings that are decidedly different from other stagings of "Into the Woods." She creates something special. She creates something bold and daring. She creates something that is exhilarating. There is style. There is passion. There is sensuality. There is Fosse. There is fluidity. And that, is what Zoller is all about.

Musically, "Into the Woods" showcases Sondheim at his very best. That said, the actual complexity, richness and eloquence of his music and lyrics require the talents of a musical director who can not only due justice to the complicated musical score, but make its urgent musicality the centerpiece of the story without any form of hesitation. You get that - and so much more - with Melanie Guerin, the creative talent enlisted as musical director for this particular Playhouse on Park production.

Guerin whose musical credits at the West Hartford venue include "The Scottsboro Boys," "In the Heights," "Peter and the Starcatcher" and "Murder for Two" gives "Into the Woods" a certain individuality and expressiveness that adds a certain "jour de vivre" to the proceedings. Completely in sync with the Sondheim mindset, she allows his musical score to breathe, beguile, astonish, entice, cajole and echo lucidically the pulsating notes, the haunting sounds, the merry skips, the delicious beats, the frenzied panting, the twisty malevolence and wonderfully timed festering and gentleness the composer/lyricist has created. Moreover, not a piece of the Sondheim puzzle is missing under Guerin's exceptional showmanship.

To keep "Into the Woods" moving merrily along (no pun intended), Guerin has assembled an exceptionally fine, first-glass group of musicians to bring the pungent Sondheim score to life - Hillary Ekwall (cello), Elliot Wallace (percussion), David Uhl (bass), Cassie Cardarelli (horn), Olivia Moaddel (violin), Eugenio Figueroa (viola), Harry Kliewe (reed) and Andrew Studenski (reed). Working alongside Guerin, the orchestral details of their ensemble are lively, classic and accurately pronounced. There's plenty of payoffs and satisfying thwack. Every ripe and juicy Sondheim lyric rings loud and clear. The songs themselves are cleverly and meticulously crafted. Vocally, the entire cast is up to the challenge of the material under Guerin's (and company's) guidance, holding their own individually, in pairs or in groups, meeting the demands of Sondheim's intricate score as originally intended.

The performances of the entire "Into the Woods" cast are splendid.
As the scary, imperfect and strangely sinister Wicked Witch, the magnetic Tania Kass - a dead ringer for k.d. lang and just as talented - who gets to shed her frightening image for a very glamorous one at the end of Act I, the actress delivers an electrifying performance that nearly blows the roof off the Playhouse on Park venue. She has great fun casting spells, working magic, commenting on the doom and gloom of the story and wrapping her vocal chops around the wild and wicked Sondheim songs that were originally created for Bernadette Peters on Broadway and Julia McKenzie in the original West End edition. What's great about Kass is that she's no copycat. Here, she gives the musical performance of the season and puts her own individual stamp on both the music and the performance much to the delight of every one on stage and in the audience. She also naturally brings the right amount of emotional substance, wit, warmth, mystery and resonance to the piece. So much so, we eagerly await her every entrance.

The delightful, well-matched Robert Denzel Edwards and Laurel Andersen are completely engaging in their respective roles of the Baker and the Baker's Wife. Given the many levels, emotions, beats and twists they are required to make as the musical's childless couple, these are not easy roles to play. But they get it right every time. Vocally, they sing the Sondheim songs with snap, vigor, passion, and precision. And their reenactment of a childless couple anxious to lift the Witch's curse of infertility (the Witch caught the Baker's thieving father in her garden one night stealing vegetables and six magic beans) is effectively played out from start to finish until a cruel twist of fate changes everything forever. Regardless, we are with them every step of the way.

In the role of the shifty and naughty Little Red Riding Hood, Jackie Garmone brings authentic voice, wit, whimsy, danger, greed and well-timed cheekiness to the part. She never once steps out of bounds or turn things into caricature or cartoon. She is the real deal as dictated by her savvy acting, double takes and acerbic line delivery. They don't come any more magical than Jaquez Linder-Long who acts and sings as if he stepped out of an enchanted book of fairy tales and landed smack, dab in the middle of the Playhouse on Park Stage. He's perfect for the part of Jack and adapts beautifully to the story at hand, its comedy, its drama, its pain, its uncertainty and its trauma. He delivers the melodious "Giants in the Sky" and the tearful "I Guess This is Goodbye" with the full, rich, voice and moist-eyed innocence that Sondheim intended for the both material and the character.

Cast in the pivotal role of Jack's caring, overprotective and sometimes misunderstood mother, Zoe Goslin offers a beautifully rounded performance that embraces both Lapine and Sondheim's version of the character. Throughout "Into the Woods," her characterization is real, compassionate and rife with humor and motherly concern. There is never any doubt that she and Long are mother and son and their individual scenes together are joyfully rendered. Jack Dillon (Cinderella's Prince/Wolf) and Isaac Kurber (Rapunzel's Prince) are charming, handsome, wicked,  flirtatious, egotistical, narcissistic and winningly affected. They are fun to watch as they play their parts to the hilt, capitalizing upon their handsomeness, kingdom worship and possible gayness,  You never once doubt their moves or motives for a moment as they sing not once, but twice about the "Agony" of their newfound and unobtainable loves, reveling in the misery, angst and heated desires of their troubled plights. Much earlier, we also find Dillon singing the pungent, sexually charged "Hello, Little Girl" to Little Red Riding Hood as the crazy and dangerous Wolf. It's a performance that comes replete with some very suggestive dancing (Zoller's dance moves are absolutely perfect) and comic exaggerations, which the actor handles playfully and effortlessly.
Vocally, he and Kueber hit all the right notes with plenty of versatility and drive as they revel and cajole Sondheim's demanding, tricky music. Their signature, slightly over-the-top poses as the handsome princes of the kingdom are a source of genuine merriment throughout they production. And yes, they have as much fun as we do watching them.

As Cinderella, Kara Arena finds real meaning and depth in her character's troubled world of "happily ever after" and "not so happily ever after." Yes, she snags the handsome prince, but she still enjoys cleaning and yearns for something much more than the "hi, ho glamorous life" of the palace. Her vocals "A Very Nice Prince" and "On the Steps of the Palace" are smartly and convincingly portrayed. There's also also a certain charm, beauty, and bewilderment to her characterization which keeps things very natural and authentic in both Act I and Act II. Hallie Friedman's Rapunzel is lovely and alluring. She screams magnificently and possesses a gorgeous soprano voice that is used quite advantageously throughout the "Into the Woods" story. Her pivotal "Our Little World" duet with Kass is a genuine showstopper that sheds insight on their not-so-perfect familial ties. 

In both the original Broadway and London production, the part of the Mysterious Man/ Narrator was nothing more than a rather obvious plot device designed to bring the entire fairy tale story to life. But in this version under the direction of Sean Harris, the wonderfully animated and charismatic Chris Bellinger crafts a rich, emotionally satisfying performance that is magical, earnest and very full of life.
Cinderella's black-of-heart stepsisters Lucinda and Florinda are played with devious glee and wickedness by Sandra Mhlongo and Bianca Day Feiner. Olivia Rose Barresi completes the nasty trio as Cinderella's Stepmother. All three are appropriately vile spitting out insults, glaring at Cinderella and flouncing about in their Festival ball gowns. They have great fun getting these points across and others  without losing the intended wickedness of their exaggerated characterizations. Danny Kelly's Steward also makes a fine impression as does the ensemble work by Katie Brough and Trishawn Paul. 

Bright, dark, energetic, thrilling and eerily hypnotic, this revival "Into the Woods" is well worth the journey and demands to be seen. So follow the path. Embrace the characters. Experience the music. Listen to the lyrics. And remember, not all fairy tales have happy endings in this exhilarating  reenactment of Sondheim's celebrated musical given new light by director Sean Harris and his very talented "Into the Woods" cast and production team.

Production photos of "Into the Woods" by Meredith Longo.

"Into the Woods" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through August 22.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.